Cape Town may not be the first place you think about for a fall or winter getaway. But with the colder weather approaching here and summer approaching there, it more than warrants consideration.
Joanne and I have been there just once, and we enjoyed it immensely. Cape Town is a thoroughly modern city that’s absolutely beautiful, slightly exotic, and graced with restaurants that any major metropolitan area could envy.
But there are two Cape towns – and the other one is not very pretty. I’m referring to the township of Khayelitsha (pictured), built on the periphery of Cape Town. We were given a tour of the township on a hot Sunday afternoon and, frankly, I wouldn’t advise it. From the back seat of our quasi-limo, we were so terribly embarrassed and out-of-place amidst the squalor and poverty of this underdeveloped urban area. And it’s not just some little hamlet. About half a million people live there. Believe me, apartheid still exists. I’ll not say more.
Before I get to the food scene, let me point out a few not-to-miss sights.
The first is Robben Island, home to the prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his adult life. Tours depart several times a day.
Groote Schuur hospital is a drive-by. I found it fascinating to see the place where the first human heart transplant was performed in 1967. As Americans, we’re conditioned to expect medical firsts to come from places like the Mayo, the Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins, but Dr. Christiaan Barnard did it here. (He has a Minneapolis connection, though, having performed his postgraduate studies at the University of Minnesota).
We also visited the church of the retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
As for hotels, we couldn’t have been happier with the CAPE GRACE HOTEL at the harbor. It’s really, really well run, the staff is extremely knowledgeable, and it boasts a beautiful dining room. We never ate dinner there, but the breakfasts were superb, whether you order à la carte or opt for the buffet.
Now on to the dinner restaurants. A word of caution: Cape Town has LOTS of crime. Consequently, the hotel will likely insist that you hire a driver every night – one who will wait for you outside the restaurant and escort you back to his car after your meal.
First stop: 95 KEEROM, a modern Italian place where the food is simply prepared and trends toward Milanese. You’ll be presented with an array of carpaccio selections – beef, of course – along with smoked salmon and tuna. Joanne had zucchini risotto “bucked up” by black truffles, while I had butternut ravioli. Both were delicious.
Mains included ostrich with soft polenta and mushrooms, as well as a trio of South African game, including kudu (a type of antelope), springbok (another kind of antelope, smaller than kudu), and wildebeast, sometimes called a gnu. How was it? I’ll have a dry-aged rib-eye at Manny’s. For dessert, you need to indulge in the chocolate selections of fondant…soufflés…or mousse.
Near the Cape Grace, an extensive waterfront development called Victoria and Alfred offers an abundance of restaurants, and the ones we tried were uniformly good. Many feature fresh, char-grilled shellfish, all local and well-prepared. We also had a very good steak at BELTHAZAR (no, it’s not misspelled).
I love Indian food, and the go-to place in Cape Town is BUKHARA, located in the Central Business District of Cape Town City. There are other locations, too, but this is its elegant, yet comfortable flagship. The specialty here: tandoori and curries. We dined on the restaurant’s second floor porch on a balmy night and actually had three orders of Naan bread (Joanne just doesn’t know when to stop) before the tandoori chicken. No dessert (In the words of Calvin Trillin, “All Indian desserts have the texture of face cream.”)
We spent hours walking along the ocean, not in the sand but on a very pleasant promenade that led us to an Italian place called LA PERLA, where we sat outside for lunch overlooking the sea and shared a platter of char-grilled shellfish. What a way to spend a warm day!
Finally, I’d insist that you take a day tour of wine country and have lunch at the Michelin-worthy LE QUARTIER FRANCAIS in Franschhoek, near Stellenbosch, about 75 kilometers from Cape Town. The place is divided into two parts: a semi-casual front dining room and a prix fixe dinner-only venue called The Tasting Room. Since it was lunch, we ate in the front and thoroughly enjoyed its signature dish, a Lamb Burger.
The Tasting Room dishes, I’m told, burst with wit and whimsy. Bread service is cornbread baked in a can…like Boston Brown bread. Appetizer Oreo cookies are savory, and loaded with gruyere cheese. And their signature dessert is Parmesan sorbet. The place has 15 rooms, and they are splendid.
If you have time, especially if you’re a wine connoisseur, devote a few days to the village of Franschhoek and the surrounding wine country. The scenery is simply gorgeous, the hospitality is warm, and of course the wines are simply world-class.
Fast food? YES! Go to NANDO’S (several locations) for PIRI-PIRI chicken, served with four levels of hot sauce – the hottest of which blows the top off the Scoville Scale.
We had a guide on a couple of days….once to wine country and the other to the Cape of Good Hope. If he was ordinary, I wouldn’t bother to give you his name, but this gentleman was exceptional – a professional in every way. And to top it off for any of you foodies: He’s a restaurant critic. His name is Rob Davidowitz, and your hotel can arrange his service.
On our trip down to the cape, we passed through an area that is populated with baboons. We pulled over to the side of the road behind another car to take a look, and as we watched, a group of them approached his car and actually opened the driver’s side door. He jumped out – and they jumped in – ransacked his car and stole what appeared to be his picnic lunch. As they fled down the hill, all you could see were their flared red asses.
CAPE GRACE HOTEL
Victoria & Alfred Hotel Waterfront
W. Quay Road, V&A Waterfront
Capetown, 8002, South Africa
Tel +27 21 410 7100
95 Keerom St
Cape Town city Centre
Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
+27 21 422 0765
BELTHAZAR RESTAURANT & WINE BAR
Victoria Wharm Shopping Center
Victoria Wharf / V&A Waterfront
Shop No. 153
Capetown, 8002, South Africa
+27 21 421 3753
33 Church Street
Cape Town, 7001
+27 21 424 0000
Old Mutual Building
Beach Rd, Sea Point
Cape Town, 8005, South Africa
+27 21 439 9538
LE QUARTIER FRANCAIS
Franschhoek, 7690, South Africa
+27 21 876 2151